The Mexican priest and independence hero Mariano Matamoros (1770-1814) gained the admiration of his contemporaries for his military exploits. He became second in command to independence leader José María Morelos.
Mariano Matamoros was born in Mexico City and attended schools there. In October 1789 he received a degree in theology and was soon appointed priest at Jantetelco in the present state of Morelos.
A sympathizer of Mexican independence, Matamoros soon clashed with Spanish authorities. In 1811 he was arrested briefly but was able to escape and join the revolutionary movement being led by another priest, Father José María Morelos. He supported Morelos's program to break up the large haciendas, abolish slavery, and curtail the power and wealth of the Church. Matamoros soon achieved the rank of colonel and was entrusted by Morelos to organize several cavalry and artillery regiments. On Jan. 23, 1812, Matamoros's troops successfully engaged the Spanish forces in the battle of Tenancingo.
This victory was followed by a major encounter with Spanish forces in the town of Cuautla in March 1812. Cuautla had become the stronghold of Morelos's army, which numbered about 3,000 men, including a well-trained division under Matamoros's command. The royalist forces began a siege which lasted for 72 days. Despite a courageous and brave resistance against an overpowering foe, the insurgents could not hold their positions. Spanish military superiority as well as lack of food forced the insurgents to evacuate the town. The defeat was very costly, but Morelos escaped, thus preventing the Spaniards from crushing completely the independence movement.
Fall of Oaxaca
Following the defeat at Cuautla, the insurgents accomplished little. In desperate need of a military victory, Morelos chose the provincial capital of Oaxaca as a possible target for an attack. He named Matamoros second in command of his army, and with a force of about 5,000 men the two leaders marched on Oaxaca. The rebels took the city on November 25. Insurgent prisoners were freed and paraded through the streets to impress the people with royalist abuses. Morelos was unable, however, to restrain his own troops from sacking the city. Many royalist officers were executed, but pro-Spanish ecclesiastics were spared.
Matamoros's bravery and military ability gained him the rank of lieutenant general. In battle after battle he now defeated the Spanish forces, expanding the territory under his control. At the time of the insurgent Congress of Chilpancingo in late 1813, Morelos appointed him commander in chief for Tecpán, Oaxaca, Mexico, Puebla, and Veracruz.
Morelos called upon Matamoros for support in the capture of the royalist town of Valladolid in December 1813. Morelos and Matamoros had assembled the largest and best-equipped army they had ever commanded. But what looked like an easy victory turned into a costly defeat. The well-trained royalist troops, now supported by fresh reinforcements from Spain, repelled the insurgent attack, countercharging with determination and courage. The insurgents were scattered and cut down by the hundreds.
Capture and Death
The insurgents suffered overwhelming human and material losses. But perhaps the heaviest blow dealt to the revolutionary movement was Matamoros's capture. The rebel leader was taken to Valladolid and placed on exhibition in the plaza, where he suffered countless indignities. He was soon tried and sentenced to death. Although Morelos made a desperate effort to save him by offering the royalists 200 Spanish prisoners in exchange for Matamoros's life, the sentence was carried out on Feb. 3, 1814, two days before Morelos's proposal reached Spanish authorities.
There is very little in English on Matamoros. Some information on his life is in Wilbert H. Timmons, Morelos: Priest, Soldier, Statesman of Mexico (rev. ed. 1970). □